What we learned from the Seahawks’ win over Atlanta
That was as confusing a game as the Seahawks have ever played, which is saying something given the confounding nature of the team under coach Pete Carroll.
Seattle was nothing short of dominant in the first half, building a 14-point lead. The Seahawks were unambiguously awful in the third quarter, letting a two-touchdown advantage turn into a seven-point deficit before Seattle came back to win in spite of itself, missing a field goal in the fourth quarter and having what would have been the game-tying extra-point blocked.
With all that in mind, here’s a best attempt to make sense of what happened.
Three things we learned:
I. Seattle’s defense can dissolve without warning. This is not about Richard Sherman or his anger on the sidelines. We’ll get to that in a bit. But through five games, the Seahawks have been exceptional on defense except for two periods: the fourth quarter against San Francisco in Week 3 and the third quarter of Sunday’s game against Atlanta. Those two quarters account for more than 25 percent of the total yards Seattle has allowed this season and nearly half the points the Seahawks have given up. The 49ers gained 122 yards and scored 14 points in the final period of their loss in Seattle while the Falcons gained 252 yards and scored 21 points in the third quarter on Sunday. Seattle has allowed just 58 yards and 2.4 points on average over the rest of the 18 regular-season quarters it has played this year.
2. Russell Wilson is a better quarterback this year. It’s not his mobility that is limited so much as a distinct lack of acceleration. He’s nowhere near as explosive as he has been in previous seasons, averaging 7 rushing yards per game and 1.7 per carry. That shouldn’t be all that big of a shock when you consider the guy suffered a high-ankle sprain in the opener and a sprained knee ligament two weeks later. And all he has done is complete more than two-thirds of his pass attempts over the past two games without throwing an interception since Week 1, when he was healthy. And more than ever, Wilson is stepping up into the pocket and continuing to look down-field on plays where he may have run in the past. It’s also worth noting that he has been picked off only twice in his last 12 regular-season games even as he’s throwing more frequently than at any point previously in his career.
3. Wilson’s health explains more than half of Seattle’s run-game struggles. The Seahawks are averaging 88.8 yards rushing this season and 3.2 yards per carry. Compare that to their 2015 averages of 141.8 per game and 4.5 per carry. Now consider that Wilson accounted for more than one-quarter of Seattle’s rushing yards a year ago. If you take out Wilson’s carries, here’s how Seattle’s rushing totals compare: 81.8 yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry in 2016 compared to 107.2 per game and 4.3 per carry last year. There’s one other factor to consider regarding Wilson’s injury: opponents don’t have to account for him as diligently when defending the read option as he’s not as big of a threat to run, and that certainly crimps opportunities for others. In other words, the single biggest difference in Seattle’s running game this season is that Wilson is not really part of it.
Three things we’re still trying to figure out:
1. How much will Sherman’s sideline tantrum matter? It could be evidence of fault lines running through the defense all the way up to the coordinator. It also could be a moment that makes Seattle’s defense stronger. It’s too soon to come to any conclusions, but this is something that’s going to be worth monitoring. As much as Sherman’s teammates tried to calm him down and reel him back in, he didn’t appear fully engaged with his defensive teammates after the blown coverage resulted in the first of Atlanta’s three third-quarter touchdowns. Sherman is a six-year veteran and a proven All-Pro. It’s not like he’s going to go in the tank. At the same time, given the emotional connection that Carroll has fostered among this team, it’s worth watching the chemistry going forward.
2. Why is Michael Bennett so darn mad? Wait. We know the answer to that question. Falcons offensive lineman Jake Matthews faked like he was going to block Bennett high, then went low to take out Bennett’s legs in what is known as a cut block. The question is whether Bennett should have been as mad as he was. On the one hand, the block is not only totally legal, but it’s a technique the Seahawks’ offensive line employs rather frequently. On the other hand, Bennett has an incredibly valid point about the bias that exists in the NFL’s officiating. Defenders can’t so much as slap a quarterback’s helmet, and they can’t hit him low, either, having been forbidden from diving at a quarterback’s legs after Tom Brady had his knee blown out by a Kansas City safety in 2008. Defenders get no such protection from cut blocks. So while I’m not saying that Bennett should be cursing Matthews out for what he considers a cheap play, in the words of Chris Rock, I understand. One reassuring footnote: It appears Bennett’s knee injury was not serious.
3. What the heck happened on defense in that third quarter? Seriously, it bears repeating. Seattle allowed 252 yards of offense in the third quarter as the Falcons scored three touchdowns, each on a drive of 75 or more yards. It matched the second-most points the Seahawks have given up in a single period during Carroll’s Seattle tenure. In the other three quarters, the Falcons gained a total of 110 yards and crossed midfield exactly twice. While two blown assignments explain two of the three touchdowns, they account for less than one-third of the yardage Seattle gave up. Was it that Atlanta got hot or did Seattle just get that far out of whack, and if it’s the latter, how do the Seahawks prevent that from happening again? Because that’s the kind of quarter that will end a season in January.